Mark Watches ‘Cowboy Bebop’: Session 20 – Pierrot Le Fou

In the twentieth session of Cowboy Bebop, THIS. IS. BRILLIANCE. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Cowboy Bebop.

This is absolutely one of the best things this show has ever done, which then makes me sad that “Wild Horses” is stuck where it is solely because it’s sandwiched in between the best episodes of Cowboy Bebop. Only by comparison does it suffer, and that’s not really fair for that story, since I did enjoy it quite a bit.

But this? This? “Pierrot Le Fou” is the most pure noir thriller Cowboy Bebop has given us, and for all the conventional tropes and images the writers throw in here, it’s still a refreshing, exciting, and ultimately engaging episode of the show.

From the very beginning of “Pierrot Le Fou,” I could tell this was going to be special. The animation was different; the cityscapes were sharper, shrouded in darkness. The music in particular was a huge part of building a creepy, surreal, and unsettling atmosphere which Tongpu worked in. Sharp, atonal bursts set inside long drones kept me uncomfortable. On top of this, the writers specifically used physical space to make me feel claustrophobic, even if we were within wide alleys and open pathways. As soon as Tongpu showed up, it was like the world suddenly shrank around him.

And this is also one of the most explicitly violent episodes of the show. Tongpu, resembling The Penguin and The Joker, laughs as he horrifically guns down the people he faces. It’s the first sign that Tongpu derives joy from what he does, a hint towards what his mental state is. It also shows us that this murderer kills for the sake of it because… well, Spike was just standing there. The fight scene that ensues is brutal and poetic, a stylized sequence that’s dream-like in quality. It was stunning to watch, and I was so shocked that this was THE OPENING SCENE. This wasn’t something saved for some grand climax in the end. IT WAS THE OPENING SCENE. And for something so wordless, we learn so much about the setting and the framing of “Pierrot Le Fou.” This man is seemingly invincible, or, at the very least, he possesses the ability to fly, to deflect bullets, to aim with frightening accuracy, to never leave anything alive. In fact, if it wasn’t for the cat meowing at Tongpu, I truly believe Spike would have been killed.

As the episode transitions to the aftermath of this confrontation, the stakes are raised. Jet learns from his friend Bob that Tongpu, who has come to be known as “Mad Pierrot,” has connections to a secret program run by the ISSP to create the perfect killer. Again, this episode isn’t really introducing us to new concepts. The “perfect killer” trope has been used again and again, but it’s how it appears in “Pierrot Le Fou” that’s so impressive. As we get snippets of information, including the fact that Tongpu is obsessive about his kills, we know that a confrontation between Spike and Tongpu is inevitable. It’s only a matter of when that is going to happen. I admit that I was worried about this, though, because Spike wasn’t exactly in top physical shape. Faye remarks that he looks very much like he did after what happened in “Ballad of Fallen Angels.” How is he going to face Tongpu again???

Regardless, Spike is stubborn and a realist. I know that much about his characterization. So when he gets the party invitation, I knew that he was aware this was a trap and that he had to go anyway. Spike’s not one to sit around and hide from these sort of things, you know? (Jet remarks as much later after he finds out that Spike has left. Again.) He heads off to the party and… lord. Lord.

I am so impressed by the use of a theme park after it has closed. With the eventual reveal that Tongpu’s mental state has degraded to the point that he is essentially a child, it adds a surreal and terrifying backdrop to an already frightening encounter. The writers have taken something we normally associate with families, with joy, with a fantastic sense of escape to it, and they’ve twisted it to make it a place of horror. Suddenly, all the rides and characters are menacing. They seem to stalk Spike. It’s like he has entered this mortifying funhouse in a way. And Tongpu uses this to his advantage and for his enjoyment.

It’s at this point that the episode switches back to Edward and Jet, and the true nature of Tongpu is revealed. My god, the sequence is animated and scored perfectly. Again, this show has a knack for using silence as a storytelling device. There is practically no dialogue except for the few moments when a scientist speaks. We see how Tongpu was created, what he was subjected to, and when he was ultimately “cancelled” as if he were nothing more than a faulty computer program. We see that first mischievous grin of his, and we see the aftermath of his escape, bodies streaked in red strewn about a white room, contrasting with the clinical nature of the place. As Jet says, Tongpu is a terrifying risk because there is nothing “as innocent and yet so cruel as a child.” That’s what Tongpu has become: a perfect killer child.

Which is precisely why the resolution of this brutal fight is so haunting to me. It seems like Spike has nothing he can use against Tongpu. Even the cat’s meow just distracts the man. Distraction can only buy Spike some more time, but he still has no way of actually killing Tongpu. Things looked horribly grim when Spike’s gun was shot out of his hand, right when the parade of characters began. (TALK ABOUT VISUAL DISSONANCE, OH MY GOD. HOW CREEPY IS IT WHEN THE PARADE STARTS???) That standoff is UNBEARABLE. With only his throwing knife left, I was left completely stumped about how this would end. But it was Tongpu’s past that came back to haunt him: a momentary flash brought back the memory of that damn cat’s differently colored eyes. Spike takes the chance and throws his knife into Tongpu’s leg just as he gets shot. (Can I just say that I am impressed that this show features the hero getting injured believably during fights? Well, relatively believable ways, that is. That’s rare.)

Watching Tongpu squirm and sob just like a child throwing a tantrum is HORRIFYING. It’s clear he hadn’t been hurt in so long that it reduced him to tears. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like for Spike! He didn’t even know about Tongpu’s mental degradation. AND THEN TONGPU IS CRUSHED TO DEATH BY THE VERY REPRESENTATION OF CHILDISH JOY. The parade kills him. LITERALLY.

My god, what an episode, y’all. Incredible, haunting, and one I’ll remember for a long time.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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